I’ve been thinking about crowds lately. There are a few reasons for that. We keep seeing them on the news. We feel the effects of them in our feeds. The crowding out of our ability to think for ourselves—or think at all—is one reason why a half dozen friends have told me they dialed back or even dropped social media altogether.
What is it about a crowd? I think that’s a question that needs more reflection. The fact that it took fifteen chapters in our series through the Gospel according to Mark for me to recognize the crowd as a primary character illustrates the problem. Crowds are mentioned by Mark thirty-three times and they exert tremendous influence on the shape of events. As Greg Morse writes, crowds “[possess] the power to make the timid brave, the good better, or the bad devastating … When passions are shared, they swell, exciting actions to the status of legend or infamy. The power of assembly can build a better society or destroy it.” Ironically, the crowd that shouted at Jesus’ trial before Pilate did both. Their only two words? “Crucify him” (Mk. 15:14).
So, let’s reflect on crowds together. Writing here about crowds is one way for me to help you navigate the times without telling you what to do. It’s a way of instructing you in climate science so you can better discern the weather on any given day. Ultimately, I’m writing here to help us hear and heed the words Jesus said to a more docile crowd:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? … For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed” —Mark 8:34–38
More than we might expect, crowds make all of this especially hard.
So that we might not lose our minds or our souls in a crowd, there are two things you need to remember about crowds and then three questions you need to ask yourself about them.
Easily Stirred, Not Easily Satisfied
In Sunday’s sermon, “Crucify Him,” we made several observations about crowds based on the behavior of the crowd at Jesus’ trial. Apart from the influence of this crowd on a Roman governor, Jesus would not have been delivered to death. How did the crowd do this? This powder keg situation has powerful lessons for us. Let’s start with some of the other characters on the scene.
This Jewish crowd was gathered between two opposing characters, Pilate and the chief priests. The Jews were an occupied people and Pilate, the fifth Roman governor over Judea, was charged with keeping order in his region. When the chief priests delivered Jesus to Pilate with call for his death, Pilate was perceptive enough to know what was behind their call. They envied Jesus’ popularity (15:10). What the chief priests unwittingly failed to realize is that Pilate did not like being used, especially by Jewish leaders. He despised them and they despised him. Once Pilate marched a legion of soldiers into the temple with banners declaring blasphemy. He killed priests as they conducted their sacrifices. He built the Jews an aqueduct 23 miles long, which was nice of him, but then charged the temple for the cost. He was a cruel governor and a weasel. He also perceived their envious motives and took Jesus to be innocent (15:14). For that reason, he belabored the trial. He asked Jesus several questions and worked angles to both keep peace and to keep from sending Jesus to his death (15:2, 4, 9, 12). As they say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus.
So, why did Pilate send Jesus to his death? Here’s one way to answer that question: because of the crowd. How it happened teaches us something about how crowds get worked by leaders and how crowds in turn work leaders.
On the day of Jesus’ trial a crowd gathered to demand that Pilate “release for them one prisoner for whom they asked” (15:6). This was customary and expected. For Pilate, though, this was an opportunity to leverage the crowd’s energy against the will of the chief priests. So he asked, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (15:9). Knowing the chief priests delivered Jesus over from envy, he perceived that the crowd may have their own mind about Jesus (15:10). Perhaps he thought the crowd would choose against the priest’s demand.
Understanding the political incentives involved, the chief priests worked the crowd. “The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead” (15:11). Barabbas was an insurrectionist and a murderer. He was the kind of person they were falsely accusing Jesus of being. How did they bring the crowd to demand the release of this prisoner? Maybe they made threats. Maybe they made promises. Perhaps they spread rumors. However they did it, this imagery of “stirring up” tells us that they were able to exert control over the crowd and to consolidate the crowd’s energy. When this happens, a crowd is more than the sum of its parts. Together with one voice they shouted, “Crucify him” (15:13, 14)
Crowds are easily stirred. That’s the first thing we need to remember about them. They are vulnerable to manipulation. And we are personally more vulnerable to manipulation when we’re in one. But that is not where it ends. Crowds are also vehicles of manipulation, which brings us to the second thing you need to remember about crowds: they are not easily satisfied.
Pilate’s motives were not as famously or flagrantly bad as other parties involved in Jesus’ death. Judas handed him over because of greed. The chief priests handed him over because of envy. Nevertheless, Pilate is the one whose name is embedded in the ancient creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” What was his motive exactly? Pilate, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” released Barabbas and delivered Jesus to his death (15:15).
Ask Yourself Three Questions
To Pilate, Jesus was interesting and innocent (15:5, 14). But at the end of the day, Jesus was inconvenient. Pilate valued his career as a Roman governor and his reputation for keeping peace over justice for this innocent man. He didn’t want to kill Jesus, but he did want to keep his life. That says something to us about Jesus—that there is no neutrality with him. It also says something to us about ourselves—that we are vulnerable to changing our thinking and making decisions in order to satisfy a crowd.
When we read the Bible, we aren’t just looking through a window into the events of the first century. We are looking into a mirror. Crowds are still a thing and so are leaders with more or less hidden motives who both play them and get played by them. Today, we too find ourselves in crowds and before crowds. So, having looked in the mirror of Mark 15—and because three is a crowd—ask yourself three questions.
First, what crowds are you running in?
Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to face a crowd. Acts 19 tells the story of the famous riot at Ephesus. As the gospel grew in that region, the growing number of disciples meant a depressed market for silver shrines to the local goddess. What ensued is as insightful as it is insane. On that crowd, I highly recommend to you a recent article by Greg Morse, “Alone Against the Mob: Crowds, Cancel Culture, and Courage.” That was the crowd that the Ephesian Christians had to deal with.
Knowing yourself means knowing your crowds. Crowds are unavoidable unless we remove ourselves from life in the world, so what crowds are you in or around? A crowd of middle school classmates, a high school locker room, the management team at your place of work, a text thread with a certain mood and collective opinion, or the current academic trends in your field of work? Don’t forget your Instagram and Facebook feeds. Yes, even your family is a kind of crowd. Any of these crowds can lead you to deliver Jesus over to be crucified.
Second, how are you tempted to please the crowd?
Every crowd has a certain way of seeing the world. A crowd’s subtle and not-so-subtle indications about what is good and beautiful and true will shape your own way of seeing things. The tangible and invisible incentives for speaking and acting a certain way have more persuasive power over us than we might realize. So, what crowds are you in? Now, ask yourself, what would you give up to satisfy the crowd? How are you willing to obscure or hide your union with Jesus in order to satisfy a crowd? How are you vulnerable to changing your thinking in order to satisfy a crowd?
Reminders of this temptation have been in the news of late. It should not surprise us that the recent ex-evangelical trend is populated with former pastors and others who simultaneously distance themself from their former faith and then reveal their new enlightened understanding of gender, marriage, and sexuality. This is the effect of the crowd. One hundred years ago the crowd tempted us to deny the Bible’s supernatural miracles. Today we’re tempted to deny the Bible’s sexual ethic.
Third, how can we be the right crowd for one another?
The word “church” means literally “assembly.” The church is a crowd. Like crowds anywhere, the church is more than the sum of its parts. When we’re with the right crowd—that is, a heathy church centered in the gospel and gathered under the righteous rule of Christ through his Word—there is no safer place on earth to be. The power of this crowd is not coercive but compelling. So, brothers and sisters, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23–25, emphasis mine).
I am profoundly grateful that after a difficult year for churches and church participation, our church is growing in joy and hospitality, in giving financially and in receiving new members. Scripture and experience have taught us that we need one another. Keep stirring one another up, keep meeting together, and keep encouraging one another. This is an urgent command and our souls are at stake in keeping it together.
A Great Crowd of Witnesses
Before we wrap up this post on crowds, we need one more lesson from Mark lest we lose our souls in the process of trying to save souls. How are we to preserve our witness in a world with so many crowds gathering under steeples and banners with Jesus’ name on them?
Once you start seeing crowds in the gospel of Mark, you cannot unsee them. And once you see them you start seeing their influence on events. Just consider the calculation the Pharisees had to make once when Jesus asked them for their opinion about John the Baptist:
And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. —Mark 11:31, 32
Afraid? These were Jesus’ people. What were they afraid of exactly? Luke lets us in on more of their conversation: “all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet” (Lk. 20:5, 6). This is why they needed to arrest Jesus by stealth (Mk. 14:1–2). Let’s just say that not everyone around Jesus completely understood his kingdom and teaching. Jesus’ raving fans had their own ideas.
One lesson here for our witness is to expect that Jesus will have all kinds of followers out there representing him in ways that are entirely opposed to his kingdom. I find it instructive that Jesus was not constantly talking about how he wasn’t like all the other people who followed him. He wasn’t terribly worried about PR. Neither did his disciples form their movements in the first century as reactions to other followers they were embarrassed about. There will always be the crazies. We might not even always agree on who the crazies are. Jesus can work all that out.
A second lesson for us here, then, is that it is okay to let our words and our works speak for themselves. That is, after all, what Jesus did. Seeing the unfolding events of his own ministry with spiritual eyes, he knew full well why he was getting in trouble. It was his words and his works that threatened the authorities. The unseemly crowd around him was simply political leverage for his arrest as a supposed troublemaker when the authorities knew he posed no real danger (14:48, 49).
So, how can we protect our witness in a world of crowds—some that are against Jesus and some unhelpfully for him? Here’s one way: in view of the faithful saints who have gone before us, keep gathering as a faithful church and keep stirring one another up for Jesus’ sake.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” —Hebrews 12:1–2, emphasis mine
Church family, look to Jesus, expect to be shamed, refuse to be ashamed, let Jesus save your witness, and remember that you are never alone in a crowd.